Incoming ASNE Prez Says Papers' Best Bet is to 'Unleash the Watchdogs'

By: Joe Strupp Rick Rodriguez has a message for newspaper editors. If you want to gain back lost readers, and attract some new ones, do what newspapers do best: investigate!

That?s the message The Sacramento Bee's executive editor will preach when he takes over as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors at the end of ASNE's conference this week.

As editors gathered here for the annual convention, Rodriguez told E&P that investigative journalism -- or "unleashing the watchdogs," as he puts it -- is one of the best ways for newspapers to compete with the growing alternative news sources.

?Doing investigative and public-service journalism. Watchdog journalism. That is something that newspapers do better than anyone else -- it is a niche that we can really call our own,? Rodriguez said during a break from the ASNE Board?s day-long meeting today.

In addition to urging editors to beef up investigative efforts at this year?s conference, which kicks off Tuesday, ASNE is also planning a three-day event at the Poynter Institute in May aimed at sparking new investigative projects at daily papers.

?It will be talking about creating a blueprint that we can roll out to push that kind of journalism,? Rodriguez said about the Poynter conference. ?The core message is that we are changing, but the things that are our basics -- like being watchdogs -- remain.?

Dave Zeeck, another ASNE board member and executive editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., applauded the approach. ?Journalists need to reconsider what their proper role is,? Zeeck said during a board meeting break. ?The big issue is our relationship with government and how they have been able to successfully manage the press. We need to manage the press.?

Other editors gathering Monday for the annual confab appeared more concerned than ever about the state of the business, pointing to lost readership and continued credibility questions as key worries.

Several ASNE board members -- who will hold their traditional board dinner tonight -- said business problems are raging, competition is exploding, and younger readers just aren?t materializing.

Add to that the ongoing credibility problem -- which reared its head again last week, with Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom being chastised for misleading readers and Boston Herald columnist Charles D. Chieppo losing his job after contracting with a state agency to help with a tourism-promotion effort -- and editors say they feel less-secure about the state of the industry than ever before.

?It feels like it is coming at us in many ways, faster and harder than usual,? Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian in Portland and a former ASNE president, said about competition from other media. ?It is a time of some tension, feeling some stress over that.?

Bhatia also noted that technological improvements, which allow more online options and faster disclosure of news, cause concern, as do newspapers? own budget woes. ?It?s the changing economic base of newspapers, because of the technical intrusions into our business model,? he added. There's also, he said, ?the struggle for circulation on Sunday, and that seems to be a universal theme.?

Charlotte Hall, editor of The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, agreed. ?It?s readership,? she bluntly cited as a top concern. ?Giving our audience more in an increasingly fragmented media world and increasing advertising needs.?

For Caroline Garcia, editor of the Monterey County (Calif.) Herald, staying relevant to readers now faced with literally thousands of news outlets is the top priority. ?How do we retain that importance?? she said. ?What do readers want from the newspaper, and how do we give it to them? We?ve been diluted and disbursed online by business needs. We need ways to reconnect with the community.?

Garcia, a former managing editor at the San Antonio Express-News and an ASNE board member, said she hoped to get some ideas during the conference, which will include two sessions focused specifically on gaining younger readership. Other events will look at coverage of the Iraq War, freedom of information, bias, diversity, and ethics.


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